SHE WOULD BE KING by Wayétu Moore


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An ambitious, genre-hopping, continent-spanning novel that uses the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the backdrop for a magical realist adventure.

Following four characters from far-flung corners of the African diaspora, debut novelist Moore tells the story of Liberia's formation in the mid-19th century. When a Virginia slave named Charlotte dies while trying to protect a fellow slave, her death sets in motion a series of supernatural events that changes the tiny West African nation's history. Her son, June Dey, flees from the plantation and soon discovers he has superhuman strength. He boards a ship for New York only to find himself headed for Liberia. Meanwhile, a white British scholar named Callum Aragon arrives in Jamaica to study Maroon communities and forces the Maroon slave Nanni to assist him. Nanni soon saves Aragon's life with the help of a peculiar ability: She can become invisible under certain circumstances. Nanni eventually gives birth to Aragon's son, a boy named Norman who possesses abilities similar to his mother's. Across the Atlantic, in a West African village called Lai, a little girl named Gbessa is born on a day that the village elders have proclaimed cursed; as a result, she garners a reputation as a witch. The reputation isn't entirely unearned: Gbessa has abilities that allow her to return from the dead. Cast out from her village, she becomes anathema to everyone but Safua, a little boy who promises to help her. June Dey, Norman, and Gbessa eventually find themselves united in Liberia as the fledgling nation is being wracked by incursions from French slave traders and tensions between black American settlers and African natives. Their desires for freedom and family drive them into each other’s arms—and toward a major event in the history of Liberia's formation. Moore is a brisk and skilled storyteller who weaves her protagonists' disparate stories together with aplomb yet is also able to render her sprawling cast of characters in ways that feel psychologically compelling. In addition, the novel's various settings—Virginia, Jamaica, and West Africa—are depicted so lushly that readers will find themselves enchanted. Unfortunately, getting these characters' stories to intersect at the back end of the book requires a level of narrative contrivance that sends the tale careening out of myth and into the realm of clumsiness.

A sweeping and entertaining novel encumbered by an unwieldy plot.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-55597-817-4
Page count: 312pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2018


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